Quid Pro Quo Harassment vs. Hostile Work Environment (Keeping Employees Safe)

Almost every workplace has employees who hold positions of leadership. These supervisors and managers oversee operations, handle hiring and termination, and are in charge of promotions and demotions. 

In most cases, people in leadership positions in the workplace use their status for good by cultivating a friendly and safe environment. Unfortunately, in other cases, people in leadership positions can abuse their power and make the workplace unsafe for other employees. 

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a scary and isolating thing to experience. It can show up in different ways, often as quid pro quo harassment or a hostile work environment. Let’s take a look at how these situations differ, and what you can do if you are a victim of either one. 

What is Quid Pro Quo Harassment?

Quid pro quo is translated from Latin to “this for that” or “something for something.” It is a type of harassment that involves a person in a position of power offering an employee a benefit in exchange for a sexual favor. 

Example: A supervisor offers an employee a raise if that employee performs a sexual act with them. 

Oftentimes, the terms will involve a negative consequence if the employee refuses the advance. 

Example: A supervisor offers an employee a raise if that employee performs a sexual act with them. If the employee says no, the supervisor will cut their pay, demote them, or fire them. 

Quid pro quo harassment is damaging to the victims who experience it. They often find themselves stuck in a position where they feel they have no autonomy over their own career choices, and worse yet, over their own body. 

Quid pro quo harassment can also happen to job applicants. In this case, an authority figure abuses their power and begins asking the applicant about inappropriate topics such as relationship status or sexual preferences. The interviewer ultimately makes a hiring decision based on if the applicant accepts or rejects a sexual advance. 

Workplace sexual assault statistics show that women are disproportionately victimized compared to men, although men also experience sexual harassment in the workplace. According to a 2017 study by NBC News and Wall Street Journal, 48% of employed women have experienced sexual, verbal, or physical harassment in the workplace, in which quid pro quo is included. 

What Should You Do If You Experience Quid Pro Quo Harassment?

Even though quid pro quo harassment is unfortunately common in the workplace, it is important to remember that it is sexual harassment. Sexual harassment of any kind is illegal and may be a violation of state and federal law. If you experience quid pro quo harassment, you have the option to report it. 

Here are some steps you can follow if you experience quid pro quo harassment in the workplace:

  • Tell the harasser to stop
    • Do it in person and bring a witness, or
    • Write a cease and desist letter
  • Find your company’s harassment policies and process for filing a harassment claim
    • Contact your HR department if you need help
  • Report the quid pro quo harassment to HR or your boss

If nothing comes of reporting the harassment internally, or if you experience retaliation from your workplace:

  • File a complaint with a government agency, such as a local office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
  • Take legal action with a lawyer who works with sexual harassment cases

A note on filing a complaint: Many local or federal government agencies have a deadline for filing a sexual harassment complaint. You often have to file within 180 or 300 days from the last occurrence of harassment. These deadlines vary between states, so be sure to check what the deadlines are in your state. 

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

You’ve heard the saying, “Every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.” The same thing applies when comparing quid pro quo and hostile work environments. Every situation of quid pro quo creates a hostile work environment, but not every hostile work environment has quid pro quo occurring. 

A hostile work environment is a workplace that intimidates employees through unwelcome conduct. This uncomfortable conduct often takes the form of workplace discrimination based on gender, race, age, disability, or sexuality. 

What unwelcome conduct constitutes a hostile work environment?

  • Harassment, sexual or racial
  • Discrimination of any kind
  • Inappropriate sexual conduct 
  • Aggressiveness and ridiculing
  • Violent crimes

Hostile work environments are created when a manager or other authority figure employs offensive behavior purposefully and consistently. Hostile work environments often see many discrimination and bullying complaints reported to HR. 

What Should You Do If You Experience a Hostile Work Environment?

Hostile work environments do not have a clear avenue to legal support in the way quid pro quo harassment does. Hostile work environments need to meet certain requirements to constitute legal involvement, such as:

  • The discrimination must occur against a protected classification such as age, disability, race, or religion.
  • The behavior must be consistent and lasting over time. One-off instances can be reported to HR.
  • The behavior is severe and interrupts the employee’s ability to work.

If you are in a position to remove the problematic employee from the workplace, you should take the necessary steps to fire the offending employee. If the CEO of the company is the offender then the situation gets more difficult. In this case, the HR department needs to be bold enough to take action against the CEO. 

If you find yourself in a hostile work environment without much power to change it, keep reporting the situation to HR. If you feel uncomfortable reporting it to HR, keep a personal journal or log of the situations when the conduct arises and be sure to note any witnesses, as well as the day and time. 

Stay Protected With an Empathetic Advocate

No one deserves to experience harassment and discrimination in the workplace. If you find yourself as the victim of quid pro quo harassment or a hostile work environment, make sure you have someone on your side who will help you get the resources and help that you need.

MSB Employment Justice is here to help you navigate harassment, discrimination, and assault in the workplace. Contact us today if you need an empathetic advocate to help you get the treatment you deserve. 

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Bree Johnson

After more than a decade in the legal industry and BigLaw firms, attorney and activist Bree Johnson saw an opportunity to do more for employees who are mistreated in the workplace with a career move to representing employees and plaintiffs. See Full Bio

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